Has John Kerry fully pondered the extent of the mess -- or, more properly, messes -- he will inherit from George Bush should he be elected president in November?

The crystal ball for Iraq is necessarily more cloudy than the one for the home front. Still, the United States will almost surely still have a sizable occupation force in Iraq on Jan. 20. It's also a safe bet that the occupation will be at least as unpopular among millions of Iraqis then as it is today. Occupations, unlike wines, do not age well.

Kerry will be both free and right to criticize Bush for the bloody mess he's gotten us into. But if Kerry holds to his current position -- that the United States is obligated to help rebuild Iraq and safeguard the creation of a post-Hussein civil order -- he will not have an alternative policy to offer.

We must assume, however, that the Democratic base is divided on the question of whether the United States should stay or go. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed that more than 40 percent of Americans want us simply to leave Iraq, and while Pew didn't break down its numbers by party affiliation, there are clearly millions of Democrats on each side of that question. Indeed, there are probably millions of Democrats who are simultaneously on both sides of that question, because the liberal internationalist impulse to nation-building and the liberal realist skepticism about U.S. occupations coexist uneasily within the mainstream Democratic view of the world.

For now, that deep Democratic ambivalence and the even deeper desire to defeat Bush mean that Kerry will get a free pass from Democrats on his Iraq policy, whatever misgivings his supporters may silently harbor. Moreover, there's not a smidgen of doubt that the Bush forces would savage Kerry if he began calling for a reduction in our occupation forces. But if Kerry wins the election and the occupation remains the fiercely contested enterprise that it is today, it's not likely that hard-core Democrats, or millions of other Americans, would have the stomach to continue the policy.

Indeed, it may then be the case -- it may be close to being the case now -- that the occupation will have become nothing but a lightning rod, that any prospect for a U.S.-backed construction of a new nation will have gone up in smoke. The errors in policy that will have led to this disaster will be Bush's. But the responsibility for extricating U.S. forces will be Kerry's, and don't think the right won't attack him for it.

Kerry's domestic inheritance from Bush, should he win, is a lot more predictable: a stunning deficit -- half a trillion dollars this year alone -- that will keep Kerry from governing as he, or any Democrat, would wish.

Confronting Democrats with deficits is a residue of Republican design. The pattern was set in the first days of the Reagan presidency, when budget director David Stockman acknowledged that the Reagan tax cuts were intended not merely to further enrich the rich but also to yield deficits so deep that no new domestic programs could be initiated by any Democratic successor.

George W. Bush has, if anything, gone Reagan one better, throwing so much money at the rich that he has jeopardized the long-term viability of Medicare and Social Security.

The question of what to do in the face of the Reagan and Pappy Bush deficits was the main issue facing Bill Clinton when he took office. The first months of his administration were dominated by a debate between such traditional liberals as then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich, arguing that the economy needed a stimulus program, and the more fiscally centrist economic policy coordinator (later Treasury secretary) Robert Rubin, arguing that deficit reduction was required to restore the confidence of the markets and get the economy chugging again. (One of the defining double standards of contemporary capitalism is that the deficits of a Democratic administration are cause for alarm, while Republican deficits are yawners.)

Clinton came down on Rubin's side, forgoing much of his election program with the notable exception of universal health insurance, a proposal of Byzantine complexity that collapsed largely of its own weight. Now Kerry, in the face of the enormous Bush deficit, has been forced to conduct a preemptive Reich-Rubin discussion of his own, and he, too, has been compelled to come forth with a Rubinesque solution.

In a speech this month he announced that as president, he'd have to put on hold a number of the initiatives he'd proposed on the campaign trail -- early education, for instance, though not the expansion of health insurance -- until he'd retired a good chunk of the deficit.

In sum, the first years of a Kerry presidency are likely to be spent entirely on cleaning up Bush's messes. It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it.

Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large. This story originally appeared in The Washington Post.

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